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Pianist from comedic classical duo discusses improv, rap, and things that go wrong


Comedic musical duo Igudesman and Joo. Photo courtesy of Julia Wesely, Carla Befera & Company.
Comedic musical duo Igudesman and Joo. Photo courtesy of Julia Wesely.

The renowned musical-comedy duo Igudesman & Joo will be performing in Palo Alto this weekend at the Oshman Jewish Family Community Center in a rare trip to the U.S. The two musicians met at the age of 12, remained close friends, and created their first show, “A Little Nightmare Music,” in 2004. Since then, their YouTube clips have garnered over 35 million views, and the duo have since performed in many countries, including the U.S, Germany and Latvia.

The performance on Saturday, Feb. 21 will explore all the things that can go wrong during a performance and illustrate how the duo embraces mistakes, using them as a source of inspiration and an opportunity for improvement.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Your performances often feature a unique blend of comedy, classical music and even other types of music, like rap. How do you pick compatible elements of all of these, and how do you create humor that is accessible for non-musician audience members?

Hyung-ki Joo (HJ): We believe that all music comes from the same place. You can take any type of music, and if you trace it all the way back, you’ll mostly end up with the same roots. It’s just the universal way that harmony and notes and rhythm works. We don’t discriminate between all types of music, and we embrace all kinds of music. That’s one of the ways that our shows don’t alienate people, because we have everything, from Bach to rap [to] jazz. Humor is universal; [it] unites us all. We’ve had success because we always write on at least two levels. There’s one level for the connoisseur of music, and [one] for someone who has absolutely no idea who Mozart was. The juxtaposition of the music and the humor [ensures that] at least one layer is being thrown at you.

And it’s actually more than just two layers; often, our audiences are quadratonic. You have the four quadrants: the kids, the teenage students, the parents, and the grandparents. So when we perform something, you will find that the audience’s laughter is quadraphonic: you’ll have the kid laughing first, then you’ll have the teenager laughing, then the older ones laughing, then the granddads and the grandmothers laughing, and all laughing at different moments. It’s this amalgam of things that happens, so really our show is for everyone.

TSD: What role does improv play in your performances, if any?

HJ: Improv is a very important part of our performance. It certainly is a very important part of our creative process.

Igudesman and Joo in a rare shot of seriousness. Photo courtesy of Julia Wesely, Carla Befera & Company.
Igudesman and Joo in a rare shot of seriousness. Photo courtesy of Julia Wesely, Carla Befera & Company.

A lot of the things happen through improvisation, often during soundchecks when we are just fooling around. We aren’t the only ones that fool around — a lot of musicians fool around. The difference is that we take that fooling around seriously. Our shows are meticulously written; however, we throw that all away once we get on stage. We start with the show as it’s supposed to be, but we are open to the fact that every day is a different day, and the audience is a different audience, and sometimes audiences will chip in, or even try to throw you off. Also, we always try to surprise the other person. We try to be spontaneous, and if someone comes up with a surprise, then we have to improvise. So we love improvising and we love keeping it fresh. One of the biggest compliments we get is, “You guys do the same show but it seems like the first time you guys are doing it” or “It seems so fresh.” For us, we never feel like we have a finished show. We’re always modifying or tweaking. It would be invisible to anyone else, but to us, it matters a lot.

TSD: On your website, it says you hope to make classical music more accessible to a younger audience. Why is that important, and why specifically did you try to make it more accessible by combining comedy, theatrics, and music?

HJ: Well, to be honest, making it more accessible for a younger audience is a bonus. Our real motto is to be creative. We wanted to create a concert that we would want to go to ourselves. We felt that the way classical concerts were being presented, and still are being presented, is so out of date and stiff, [resembling] funerals rather than celebrations of life and music. Everybody involved in classical music takes themselves way too seriously.

We take the music seriously. For us, the music is number one. But we don’t see why the music that is so great cannot be coupled or married with comedy or humor, as it was done in the original times when Mozart [and] Beethoven were around. In those days, concerts were much more open. When did we make up these rules and formulas that every symphonic concert has to be an overture, concerto, followed by a symphony? It’s one of the most boring formats ever, and it has nothing to do with the spirit of the music at the time in which it was written. When Beethoven wrote his first violin concerto, his soloist was doing tricks with his bow on his violin in between movements, and Liszt would talk to people in the audience between his pieces. This was common at the time. We’ve lost that spirit of improvisation and connection with the audience.

TSD: Beyond performing, you and Mr. Igudesman also hold an education program, 8 to 88, designed to explore less-practised aspects of music. What are your short-term and long-term goals for the program?

HJ: The short-term and long-term goals are ideally the same thing. What we hope for anyone who takes part in 8 to 88 is essentially the same thing we hope will happen for anyone who comes to our performances. We don’t really have a message, but if [we did], it would be that we hope everyone would be creative. After seeing one of our shows, or taking part in our education program, they would go out and be creative in their own lives, whether it be with music, or cooking, or even working in finance–whatever it is they do, that they would be creative.

Igudesman and Joo will perform at the Oshman Jewish Family Community Center in Palo Alto on Feb. 21.

Contact Serena Wong at serenaw ‘at’

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Serena Wong is a music editor at the Stanford Daily. She is a sophomore from Los Angeles, Calif, majoring in CS. To contact her, please email serenaw 'at'